Thursday Theology: The Other Focus and Unfinished Business: A Project for Seminex-style Theology in 2024 and Beyond (Part One)

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Most of you met Ron Roschke for the first time last November via a book review he wrote for Thursday Theology. You encountered him again last month through a thoughtful reflection on his experience of Seminex. Themes from both those contributions will come together this week and next as Ron uses his deep familiarity with current biblical scholarship to propose a project for the confessional theology that Seminex championed and that continues to shape us at Crossings today.

Please keep Ron in your prayers, by the way, as he deals with some health issues over the next couple of months. They are grievous enough to have prompted him to take a break from Wordloom, the remarkable series of weekly text studies we told you about when we introduced him in November. Even so, the prognosis is encouraging, enough so that Ron has invited his Wordloom readers to watch for his return. God grant it. He does such good stuff in his work with Scripture!

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community



The Other Focus and Unfinished Business:
A Project for Seminex-style Theology in 2024 and Beyond
(Part One of Two)

by Ron Roschke


I think it was Ed Schroeder who first described the theology of Seminex as an ellipse having two foci. One was the historical critical method of biblical interpretation (HCM). The other was the law/gospel hermeneutic of the Augsburg Confession (LGH).[1]

I believe that image is accurate—in the end. However, it does not describe the initial battle lines of the conflict that created Seminex. These were drawn by J.A.O. Preus, president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), in what may well have been a ghost-written document entitled “A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles.” [2] Preus was able to get this document endorsed by the LCMS’s 1973 Convention in New Orleans. “A Statement” was designed to serve as the theological standard by which the faculty majority of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, would be judged and eventually declared to be heretics. Of the document’s 4,296 words, 3,032 of them (71%) were expended on only one of the six articles in the document: “Holy Scripture.” The remaining 29%—1,264 words, shorter than one of my sermons—covered everything else: “Christ as Savior and Lord,” “Law and Gospel,” “Mission of the Church,” “Original Sin,” and “Confessional Subscription.” In other words, the Missouri Synod was preparing for a “battle over the Bible.”

In public opinion and the public press at the time, this was how the conflict was characterized. The intense grilling of the exegetical faculty in subsequent interviews, designed to expose their “errors,” proved that this was indeed the focus. The heresy-hunters’ overall target may have comprised six concentric circles, each drawn from Preus’s Statement, but the circle in the center took up over two-thirds of the real estate—an easy bullseye to hit.

From Bullseye to Ellipse

section of a grey and white dart board with a metal dart with red flights at the end.

Bullseye image from Canva

It was the theological genius of the faculty majority to challenge this pogrom by turning the target from a circle into an ellipse and then insisting that the second of the ellipse’s two foci had primary importance in this debate. Led by colleagues such as Bob Bertram and Ed Schroeder, the faculty majority declared that the most significant issues the LCMS needed to discuss in order to resolve the conflict had to do not so much with Scripture (Focus One) as with the Lutheran Confessions (Focus Two)—specifically, with how the Confessions shape our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how this understanding gets worked out in the church’s proclamation and a theology that distinguishes between law and promise.

This was the confessional standard to which the faculty—and every Lutheran pastor—had pledged themselves. It was for Lutherans the norm by which all theology was to be judged. Rather than arguing about six 24-hour days of creation or the biological nature of Jonah’s big fish, this primary focal point demanded that the church give an accounting of what its true hope is, and of the foundation on which this hope rests. This was and is, quite literally, the life-and-death issue upon which the church stands or falls. This—law and promise, sin and grace—was the primary, essential focal point in this circular-target-turned-ellipse.

While we must acknowledge this was a brilliant theological move, it did not succeed in changing the course of the political juggernaut that would lead to Tietjen’s dismissal and the faculty majority’s firing. The final outcome had less to do with Seminex’ s political strategies and more to do with the theology of the LCMS, then and now. However, in framing the issue as an ellipse with one major Confessional focus, Seminex offered the LCMS its greatest (and perhaps last) opportunity to affirm or reject what was and is the heart of Christian faith. Unfortunately, at the time of the conflict and in the half-century that has followed, the Missouri Synod has never realized who really was “on trial” here.

The “Confessional move” from circle-to-ellipse was the absolutely right thing to do in the 1970s. Fifty years later it continues to strike me as the “right move” needed at that point in time. Still, there remained that other focus, the one about biblical hermeneutic. And in 2024 I am equally convinced of two more things. First, there is a lot for the Seminex community and its heirs—even a half century after the conflict—to glean by taking the biblical hermeneutic focus seriously. Second—even more importantly—to ignore those issues diminishes the capacity of Confessional Lutheranism to live up to its deepest values and potentials.

What Exactly Is the Historical Critical Method?

First, we ought to understand what is meant by “historical critical method” (HCM). The anti-Seminex forces said over and over that HCM was “bad” because its proponents were being critical of the Bible, high-handed in their way of dealing with the Scriptures—behaving with an arrogant attitude that placed LCMS moderates as judges of the Word of God. But that is exactly the opposite of what HCM was and is all about. [3] The “critical”—the “C”—in HCM is directed not toward the text but rather toward the interpreter, the one who reads the text. From the eighteenth century on, Western culture began to see the need for something like HCM as readers of ancient texts became more and more aware that significant gaps of understanding existed between themselves and the authors of those texts.

Many factors deepened awareness of this dilemma. Philosophical, historical, and linguistic studies uncovered interpretive “disjunctions” that led to an awareness of the profound difference in the ways in which people in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries understood the world in comparison with previous generations. At the same time, archeology continued to create a more profound understanding of what ancient cultures were like, based upon the material artifacts and texts they had produced.

As this awareness of “difference” came into being and deepened, many textual scholars began to realize that a reader of ancient texts needed to be self-critical. Each of us needs to bear responsibility for the assumptions we all too easily drag into the interpretive process. If we impose our own contemporary assumptions upon ancient texts, we short-circuit our ability to really hear and understand what our forebears were trying to say.

This way of understanding HCM as a self-critical method never gained wide currency in the theological battles that gave birth to Seminex in the 1970s. It seemed, often, that moderates in the debate feared that claiming too much about HCM would drag the debate right back into the circular target that allowed conservatives to ignore the deep Confessional issues. At times, the moderate “defense” of HCM boiled down to something like this: “It’s really OK—permissible—to read biblical texts using HCM. It does not jeopardize the law/promise principle, which is central to understanding the Scriptures.”

However, I think the issues raised by HCM can be stated much more powerfully and unequivocally than that. A half-century after the events of the Seminex conflict, we can state the issue as clearly as it needs to be put: Unless readers of the Bible are willing to be self-critical about the presuppositions they bring to the interpretation and understanding of the text, the text itself will not be heard. Instead, “the Scriptures” will be little more than a mirror reflecting back the untested presuppositions the reader brings to the text.

When we are unwilling to be self-critical in reading the Bible, we dampen the power of the Scriptures as Word of God in their ability to speak to us; the Bible becomes an idolatrous echo of our own un-reflected assumptions. And when this happens, we do not “hear” or “believe” what God wants to say to us; we simply “believe what we believe about the Bible.” In this diminished capacity of “listening” to the Scriptures, “biblical faith” becomes “eternal and unchanging” (which HCM’s critics so highly and consistently value). We end up listening only to ourselves, protected from having the text truly address us and change us.

Second-Generation Historical Critical Methods

From Canva

A funny thing happened to HCM while so many of us were on our way to Seminex: HCM evolved. In the years surrounding Missouri’s purge of its “heretics,” mainstream interpreters of the Bible were coming to appreciate new dimensions of the challenges faced by readers of ancient texts. We can chart this most clearly, perhaps, by considering the evolution of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).

For many decades up to the middle of the twentieth century, the SBL organized itself into two working groups: Old Testament and New Testament. The “fathers” of HCM would expound upon the “assured results” of their scholarly work and everyone else listened attentively. In 1968, Robert W. Funk was named Executive Secretary of the Society. Under his leadership, immense changes began to reshape the organization. The Society founded its own publishing company, Scholars Press. Funk launched the Jesus Seminar in 1985. And throughout these years, there was an ever-expanding explosion of interpretative options for reading the Bible.

It’s easiest to understand this explosion as a logical outgrowth of HCM itself, especially in its dedication to the important work of self-criticism. Practitioners of HCM became increasingly aware—and sometimes astounded!—about how unaware each of us may be regarding the cultural assumptions we bring to reading any text. Pre-critical readers of texts assumed that all of us read a text from the same vantage point—we were all seeing “the same thing.”

But the more that critical readers reflected on textual hermeneutic, the more self-aware they became of how there are immense—and often unconscious—forces that shape all our thought patterns: gender, race, social and economic status, sexual identity and orientation, and the list goes on. We human individuals simply do not look at reality in the same ways, and these differences also affect the way we read the Bible. Giving an account of these differences—bearing responsibility for them—required an ever-expanding set of tools for understanding the Scriptures. Thus, interpretive options for reading the Bible continued—and continue—to multiply. I am referring to these “appendices and additions” as “second-generation HCM.”

All of this poses a deep challenge to many who want to read the Bible through the lens of the Lutheran Confessions. At times the cacophony of interpretive options generated by HCM seems to drown out the clarity of God’s good news. The Confessions make reading the Scriptures “easy” in comparison to the complex and sometimes contentious tugs-of-war taking place within the community-web that practices HCM.

This “Confessional anxiety” is only deepened as these other interpretive options begin to “squeeze out” Confessional norms and practices in the church’s preaching and its preparing of women and men for rostered leadership in the church. In ecclesial life and professional formation, the Confessions are increasingly ignored altogether. It becomes easy to think about these HCM interpretive options as being opponents to the gospel itself.

There are paths forward, however, than can lead us toward a reinvigorated future for both ‘”the Seminex project” and the role of the Lutheran Confessions as the twenty-first century continues to unfold. We will explore these paths in next week’s installment.

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[1] Edward H. Schroeder, Seminex Remembered, ed. Michael Hoy (St. Louis MO: Crossings Community, 2024), p. 28. In describing “the other focus” of the ellipse, I most often will be referring to it as “the Lutheran Confessions.” I think the term “law/gospel hermeneutic” (LGH) works well in creating a parallel with “historical critical method” (HCM). I understand LGH to be a hermeneutical method derived from the Lutheran Confessions. However, I will continue to refer to the focal point more broadly as “Lutheran Confessions” because I think the point of comparison is actually larger than a hermeneutical method; it has to do with our very identity as “Lutheran” and how we go about defining that through our engagement with the Confessions. The issue here is whether the Confessions are pitted against HCM or work in tandem with it.

[2] “A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles” (St. Louis MO: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1973).

[3] In this description of HCM, I am thinking about the method as it has evolved through what I call “second-generation methods,” which I will describe in more detail a little later. In general, HCM in its earlier forms (as “higher criticism”) worked with texts to create a model of the world in which the text was produced. As the method evolved—during the decade before the time of Seminex and into the present—there is a significant shift and a “turn of gaze” that is meant to include the reader/interpreter as part of the process that creates meaning.

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